Friday Night: Stars at Fitzgerald's

Photos by Nathan Smith

Stars, Diamond Rings, California Wives Fitzgerald's October 12, 2012

When I spoke to the fine folks at Fitzgerald's a couple of weeks ago to commemorate the club's first two successful years under new ownership, I wanted to hear about the highlights. Of the hundreds of acts that have graced both Fitz stages since the changeover, who has been the best?

From more than one person, the answer came back "Stars." The Canadian indie-pop band has acquired quite the reputation for their intimate, electronics-studded live performances, good enough to impress those locals who manage to catch more shows than even your faithful Rocks Off correspondents.

And what luck! The band was scheduled to be in town again on the 12th. I made a point to catch Stars' show at Fitz on Friday to see what the fuss was all about.

I certainly wasn't alone in my curiosity. A large crowd filled both the floor and balcony of the venue's upstairs room to hear the band's mix of pop, electronica and alternative rock. Four large mirror balls hung from the rafters of the old club, promising shimmering sounds to come.

Diamond Rings
Diamond Rings

The first act of the evening was California Wives, a Chicago quartet that released its debut LP, Art History, on Vagrant last month. Clustered tightly on a stage crowded with the myriad keyboards, amps, drums and sequencers to be deployed throughout the night, the Wives delivered a short batch of sleek and gentle pop tunes as the crowd filled in.

The dreamy, pitch-perfect songs reminded me of U2's less grandiose '90s output, but at times California Wives edged a tad too near to lullaby territory for my tastes. Their talent was evident, but their polished and polite music might've been better appreciated at the end of the night rather than the beginning.

The energy level onstage picked up considerably during the following set by Diamond Rings, the slithering synth-pop project from flamboyant Toronto musician John O'Regan. Clad in all white and sporting a haircut that fell somewhere between Morrissey and Vanilla Ice, O'Regan looked the part of a star, and faces in the crowd lit up immediately as he bounded on stage.

"This is a real special place for me," he said as he surveyed the club's dank old environs. "I've been downstairs; I've been upstairs. But this is my first time to play here with a full band."

Friday Night: Stars at Fitzgerald's

O'Regan put those band members to work cranking out sexy, electronic dance-rock, and the crowd started to move a little. The sticks lodged up the many white asses in attendance slowly began to slide out as frosty longnecks performed their thirsty work. O'Regan helped, charging up the crowd with slinky dance moves of his own.

Diamond Rings broke out fun, bouncy tunes that recalled Erasure and early Depeche Mode. Despite O'Regan's apparent youth, the memory of the '80s loomed large in the music. From other performers, such a loving look back might've been insufferable, but Diamond Rings' characteristically Canadian set was sincere and irony-free.

The crowd's appreciation seemed to grow as the group went along, and by the time they finished up, they were sent off with a genuine roar from the crowd rather than the polite applause that greeted them.

By this time, the room was packed. Evidently, word has gotten out about Stars' performances over the last decade, and the band was met by one of the larger Fitzgerald's crowds in recent memory when they took the stage.


Friday Night: Stars at Fitzgerald's

The crowded club began to warm up fast as the hundreds of bodies pressed together strained the limits of Old Spice. Stars made every attempt to drop the temperature with cool and remote music like their new set opener, "The Theory of Relativity." Despite the humidity in there, the band's glossy, genteel offerings begged listeners to cuddle up rather than sweat it out, and that's exactly what many of the couples in attendance did.

Cheers went up when the guitars were deployed for "A Song Is a Weapon," and the audience settled in for a long and dense selection of songs rich with material from this year's North. Co-frontpeople Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell swapped verses and traded harmonies over an intriguing blend of oldies, New Wave and soft alternative that rocked, swayed and drifted by turns.

The band was bathed in icy blues and rich purples by the stage lights as the spinning disco balls rained glittering pinpoints down on the crowd. In contrast to the ecstatic and youthful electronica pumped out by Diamond Rings, Stars' sound is more grown-up, staid and sentimental. The band was large and the room was full, but songs like "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" came out quite intimate and affecting, even though trademark H-town chatter could be heard over the quieter passages.

Chatty or no, the crowd soaked in every note like a desiccated sponge, and the appreciation appeared to flow both ways.

"I love playing here," Campbell said. "It's a beautiful city... thanks for listening."

Indeed, Houston and Stars seemed to be well-suited for one another. The band's calm and occasionally chilly tunes washed over the assemblage like air-conditioning -- a pleasant effect, you'd agree. The sense of hope, even in pain, that fortifies Stars' music seemed to tap right into the unquenchable optimism that often lurks just behind our city's ugly façade.

Before Omar Afra and Jagi Katial took over Fitz a couple of years ago, this might've been the kind of tour that skipped over Houston entirely. Looking at the packed house of white folks clapping and dancing to "Walls" on Friday, those days seemed nearly unreal, like a half-remembered dream.

All of a sudden, it felt impossible that Stars would not return again soon, greeting us as friends and chilling us all out for an hour or two more.

Personal Bias: My first Stars experience.

The Crowd: White boys and girls.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Ugh, I love his white jeans."

Random Notebook Dump: Pleasant dreams may be a common side effect of this particular tour.

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